According to Arcade Fire front man Win Butler, The Suburbs is not so much intended as a criticism of the suburbs as it is "a letter from the suburbs." Butler and his brother, Will, who is also in the band, grew up in the suburbs of Houston, Texas and lived on the East Coast before Butler moved to Montreal and started Arcade Fire with his now-wife, Régine Chassagne. Unlike a lot of semi-trendy suburb bashing, The Suburbs takes a more complex view of the openness and striving for meaning found in Butler's childhood memories. As one reviewer wrote, "The Suburbs defies stereotypes and expectations while reclaiming the worth of the suburbs as a place where monotony urges one to true existential crisis." In defying traditional depictions of suburban misery, "the album trumps a mere collection of clichéd anthems of malcontent…forgoing pure critique and staying focused on the honest evocation of physical and psychological suburban landscapes."
The suburbs were not always talked about casually as a cultural no-man's-land. When suburbs were first invented in the 1950s, they were imagined as something closer to an American utopia: places of safety, prosperity, and relative conformity in which the chaos of world wars and urban sufferings could be kept at bay. But the project of the suburbs has since become the object of a heavy load of cultural criticism, ranging from historians who point out the racism and exclusion of the suburban project to art school kids who resist their own suburban upbringings by smashing TVs. Some of the greatest rock music of the 1990s reflects on and resists the suburban paradigm, whether it is by thrashing around garage-rock style or descending into a slow, sad spiral of meaninglessness.
The Arcade Fire, themselves at least partial suburbanites, take a different tack than the art school kids and indie rockers before them. They don't bash the suburbs—they take us into them. They also make fun of a different kind of doldrums, the boredom and façade of the supposedly more cultured urbanites: "By poking fun at The City as a place of affected depth, Arcade Fire avoids the creation of binaries; i.e. the 'burbs equal suffering and the big city equals salvation," writes Daniel Levis Keltner for Precipitate. In "We Used to Wait," the setting is a slow suburban past in which Butler wrote love letters and then waited for the reply. The place, the imagined suburbs, is beautiful by virtue of the nostalgia it now contains. But the sense of change—of leaving, growing up, moving on, and moving faster—is just as important as the sense of sameness in the song. As a "setting," the suburbs become less a physical space, and more a feeling, a way of life that, at least for Butler, no longer exists.